Posts Tagged classroom-to-prison pipeline

To End School-to-Prison Pipeline, Focus on Mental Health

Published by —  We’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly.

God knows what possessed me, but instead of multi-tasking I stayed glued to every hideous moment of PBS’s Solitary Nation.  The Warden of Maine State Prison, Rodney Bouffard, so questions the practice of solitary confinement that he allowed TV cameras to document 6 months in his solitary-confinement unit.  The hour-long piece shows blood, guts, feces, desperate screaming, and a level of misery that makes the worst media violence look tame and staged.

Don’t watch it.  Honestly.  Just take my word.  I squirmed knowing that as an American, I allow a public system to commit this torture.  Costing enormous taxpayer dollars, solitary turns human beings into self-mutilating, self-loathing, fiercely-murderous animals.  Mind you, these guys committed a violent crime while in prison.  But we’re such a punitive culture, we don’t even look for alternatives to driving them insane, knowingly, by putting them in a prison-within-a-prison.

Bouffard says that 80% of his offenders will be released.  “You can have them do their time in isolation, but I don’t want them living next to me when you release them.  The normal person thinks that if you punish them, they’re going to get better.  The reality is the opposite.  It’s really dangerous.”  Got that?  What we’re doing is really dangerous.

Ironically, Maine’s laudable prison reforms have yielded the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, 145 people per 100,000.  That state works hard to imprison only those who can’t be maintained safely in the community.  Louisiana’s rate is almost 900, the highest, but the average is 480.

The school-to-prison pipeline generously feeds this system.

Violent criminals start young.  One Maine inmate tells of having killed two prison guards while already in prison at age 16.  Sixteen?!  How old was he when he committed the crime that first got him in prison?  Fifteen?  Fourteen?

Somehow he’s got a wife and 2 daughters.  As a lifer with no hope of release, he wants to be transferred to a prison near them so they can visit.  With chilling credibility, he says that with nothing to lose, he has no incentive not to kill again, and threatens the very people in the room.  He wants medication because it makes him calmer, more social.  But the officials feel he hasn’t learned his lesson and so hasn’t deserved the break.  Like he’s still a wayward schoolboy.

First we kick bad kids out of school.  Then we kick young offenders out of society, and finally we kick bad prisoners out of the prison’s mainstream.

Punishment doesn’t work, never has.

There are two basic theories of punishment that both rest on certain assumptions, whether for adults or juveniles.  “Retributists” assume bad guys deserve what they get.  They had choices and made a bad one; they hurt someone, so we’ll hurt them.  “Utilitarians” believe punishment deters future criminal activity.  Next time they’ll think twice.  Actually, research shows that over three quarters of ex-cons recidivate within five years, so forget that.  In any case, these theories assume that criminals are rational people weighing costs and benefits.

In fact, criminals tend to be young and impulsive, and not surprisingly, they usually have personal histories of trauma.  Fully 20% of prison populations have a diagnosed mental illness.  Far from rational, these are kids, or people with seriously impaired thinking.  In solitary they slash their wrists or misbehave wildly to get admitted to the mental health unit where meds will ease the rage, urges and pain.

Why not allow the dangerous to be chemically restrained?

Prison psychiatrist Dan Bannish says that his mental-health unit “is about treatment, not punishment.  Everything is geared toward skill development, relationship building and appropriate interactions.  Everything about it is about becoming social.  They’re used to coming from environments where people hurt each other, where they’re anti-social.  This is a whole build-up of how you relate to other people.  You have to practice it every day.”

Right, because big surprise:  these guys were lacking pro-social skills in the first place.  The science of “criminogenics” argues that the way to prevent recidivism is to make sure that when offenders are released, they are not socially isolated or still holding the antisocial beliefs that lead to their misbehavior.  In other words, they shouldn’t be in the same crazy-making situation they were in when they committed their crime.  As an advocate for children’s mental health, this makes me crazy.

Currently America’s incarcerated population is 2.4 million people, the largest by both rate and number in the world.  Of the total, 51% are drug-related offenders.  Robbers are only 4% and murderers 1%.  Substance abuse is a mental illness.

Therefore, raw prison statistics argue that we have a mental health crisis on our hands, not a nation with the world’s largest share of bad guys.

It’s insane to spend massive amounts of resources on punishment instead of mental health promotion.  Our priorities further crush vulnerable kids growing up in harsh conditions.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Juvenile Prison Stats Reveal American Attitudes Towards Kids

Published by — America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.

There is no alternative universe where bad kids go and get better.  Period.  Such a place does not exist.

Mind you, it’s insane to tolerate classroom or school disruptions, never mind criminal activity among children and youth.  A kid wasting a class’s time by flipping over a desk and swearing at a public-school teacher is effectively stealing taxpayers’ money.  A thief is a thief, no matter how old.  Whether kids behave disruptively or criminally, we need to act quickly or they’ll get the idea that what they’re doing is okay.  It’s not.

But why is the most frequent solution kicking kids out?  Alternatives can be found.  But overwhelmingly, American schools and its judicial system remove little rotters from their classrooms, or from the families and communities that raised them, and warehouse them in behavior-disordered classrooms, boot camps, alternative schools or juvenile prisons.  There, they get worse.  Researchers call it “congregate contagion,” meaning they catch bad ideas from other bad kids, like catching measles.  Then they return to the families and communities that didn’t know what to do with them in the first place, having gotten zero help with receiving them back successfully.  How’s that going to make the kid better?

Very smart people, whom I respect, seem to wear blinders to ignore what happens after the kick-out.  Today I’ll pick on one such smart person, Philip Howard, founder of Common Good, precisely because otherwise I admire him tons.  He pleads passionately for simplifying the rules, laws, and regulations that muck up government’s ability to get anything done.  His book The Death of Common Sense permanently transformed how I thought about rules and regs.  His recent work, The Rule of Nobody, argues that legalistic micro-managements absolve actual humans from making judgments and taking accountability for them.  I’m with him.

But is it common sense to include in Howard’s lists of regulatory idiocies rules that limit kids being summarily removed from class?  For him it’s a no-brainer; kick ‘em out.  But where and how will bad kids ever learn community-appropriate rules if not in a healthy community?  For example, wouldn’t it be cheaper and far more effective than prisons or other warehouses to pair a non-violent kid with a trained person, working one on one to reintegrate him or her into the home, school and community in healthy ways?

If presented with the evidence, I bet even Howard would agree prisons offer no hope of making bad kids better.  And yet they are an over-flowing landfills of unwanted children.

Consider the Cross-national Comparison of Youth Justice.

America’s contempt towards kids who do bad things is unique, internationally.  A fascinating study by researcher Neal Hazel looks at incarcerated youth and children, under 18, across juvenile-justice systems in 20-plus nations.  The differences are stunning.  (You’ll find his chart comparing countries on page 59.)

The lowest juvenile rates are:

Japan           0.1 (youth per 100,00 under 18)

Finland         3.6

Sweden        4.1

As a British researcher, Hazel bolds the U.K. data, horrified to find that the highest rates include:

England and Wales   46.8

South Africa               69.0

But the showstopper is U.S. rate at:  336.0.  It’s the only rate in triple digits.  Nearly 5 times that of the next highest, South Africa.  That’s an enormous garbage heap of kids.  If Americans aren’t genetically prone to produce bad kids, what is the data saying?

Yes, it’s a no-brainer to protect the kids who are cooperating from the disruptive ones.  But our solution creates a different problem.  Howard is both a famous author and a lawyer.  So I’m assuming that whether or not he has kids of his own, he runs with the private-school set.  When kids do the naughty in private schools, they’re out.  End of discussion.  They probably go to public schools.  Some kids, mainly poor and minority, go to urban schools of last resort, the very schools that have been mandated by the President to reduce suspensions and expulsions.  When you’re at the cushy end of segregation, removing disruptive kids is simple and just common sense.  As long as you don’t think about where they end up.

Every night we sit in front of the TV and watch cops shows with plots that follow some version of trail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.  Right and wrong are so obvious.  Wrong is wrong.  No excuses.  No mercy.  Bad guys need to be punished and put away.  Anything else is Officer Krupke liberal excuse-making.

Loving and caring for all kids is not simple and often requires more than common sense.  American attitudes towards troubled young people are writ large in our willingness to throw them away.  We do so our own peril.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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